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About the Change

Bolshoi Ballet


July 2004
London, Covent Garden

by Charlotte Kasner

© John Ross

'Spartacus' reviews

Klevtsov in reviews

Belogolovtsev in reviews

Petrova in reviews

Stepanenko in reviews

recent Bolshoi reviews

more Charlotte Kasner reviews

A summer visit from the Bolshoi is luckily becoming a fairly regular event, not quite yet guaranteed, but alas the same cannot be said of the trotting out of the same old Cold War clichés from the reviewers, at least as far as Spartacus is concerned.

Since the Grigorovich version was first seen in London a year after its premiere in 1968, the press has struggled with a desire to burden it with their own ideology that is in conflict with their emotional and professional reaction to the piece. No work of art, even on a “historical” theme, can be divorced from the designs and tastes of the period in which is it created. More than quarter of a century after its inception, the imprint of Brezhnev’s 1960s is evident in the women’s shimmying during the orgy and seduction scenes and there is a vague suggestion of the in-joke of a party in the apartment of an apparatchnik with the vodka washing down the caviar. But it is as well to remember that this version of Spartacus premiered during the “Prague Spring” when the relative prosperity that Soviet citizens had enjoyed in the four years since Kruschev’s death was tempered with doubts, however quietly voiced, about the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the further isolation that had been signalled by the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Yet again, reviewers remind us that they find Aram Ilyich Khachaturian’s score “bombastic” and “thumping” etc etc and admittedly the Grigorovich version does not emphasise the subtleties of the score, however well the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra are playing and however well it is conducted. Having danced in it, Grigorovich did cut two and a half hours from the 1958 Jacobsen version after all! What is less well known is to what extent Aram Ilyich literally put his life on the line during Stalin’s lifetime and later in defending the oppressed at home and as a cultural ambassador abroad. He was unhappy at the treatment that his score received after the initial production in 1958 but, the integrity of his approach holds good in the Grigorovich version which is most well known and most often seen internationally. (There are at least thirty different versions in Russia alone).


Mark Peretokin as Crassus leads his Army
© John Ross

So is this just a tired old propagandist war horse produced by a generation that witnessed the Revolution at first and second hand? Do we demand it due to a desire to pickle the Bolshoi in aspic and so that we can delight in moaning about there being no great exponents of Spartacus after Mukhemedev?

Two years ago on their last visit, it was beginning to look like it. In the 1960s and 1970s, Stanislavski-trained Bolshoi dancers had plenty of opportunity to read depth into the scenario of fighting against the odds. We may well be able to say what the Romans did for us, but Russian culture derives from a Greek tradition and the Romans concentrated their efforts in a different direction. Spartacus was of course enslaved by the Romans because he deserted from the Roman army, a training that maybe saved his bacon when he was fighting as a gladiator but also enabled the gamekeeper to turn poacher. Crassus could be seen as a metaphor for Hitler, Brezhnev, Andropov and Chenyenko. Spartacus could even be seen as a metaphor for Trotsky. For a while, many Russians may have wanted to embrace the values for which Crassus and Aegina strive, but now that the realities of capitalism are biting, the true ideology of the ballet re-reveals its meaning to the new generation of dancers and audience. These are not roles that can be danced on steps alone, even though the virtuosity seeps through to the corps (well, the men at least). It is credible to dancers and audience alike on far more than Bolshoi spectacle, even if they may not rationalise it.

Oddly enough, it has been Crassus that most convinced this season. Neporozhny danced three performances out of four and gave us a sinewy rendition that was reminiscent of John Hurt as Caligula. His almost crazed military and sexual blood lust lifted the frequent temps de poisson and , hey, why do a double tours when you can do triples and land in a neat fifth? His partnering was breath taking even though he had a less assured Aegina in Stepanenko, especially on the opening night when she looked wobbly and almost embarrassed. His ballon was superb, holding out the promise of exhilarating batterie. Peretokin was less precise but gave us a broodier, more militaristic Crassus, perhaps closer to the historical evidence.


Yuri Klevtsov as Spartacus, Inna Petrova as Phrygia
© John Ross

Male Bolshoi bodies have changed considerably since Grigorovich’s departure and are leaner and lighter than in the past. Belogolovtsev and Klevtsov have a physique that is closer to Vladimir Vassiliev than Irek Mukhamedev, although Klevtsov’s interpretation is reminiscent of the latter. Neither quite have the power of their illustrious predecessors but both managed to convince. Belogolovtsev’s attitude turns at the end of Act I are astonishingly controlled to the extent that there is a fraction of a pause in attitude devant beautifully tempered by a flexible supporting ankle. His is the thinking Spartacus, Klevtsov the action man. Klevtsov re-interpreted the ending in a disturbing suggestion that Spartacus had given up, flinging his swords into the wings in an almost Christian-like sacrifice. This is almost as bad as giving Swan Lake a happy ending.

The domination of Bessmertnova in overseas tours and in recordings almost made one forget that Phrygia is more than a passive foil to male power. Inna Petrova and Anna Antonicheva have gone a long way to erase the memory of Bessmertnova’s coldness, recalling the role’s creator Ekaterina Maximova, and both gave us a tender interpretation that breathed new life into the pas de deux. However, Petrova did not give a very mature interpretation and seemed almost girlish, for some reason grinning throughout the pas de deux in Act III on Friday night. She seemed to be determined to show us just how pretty her port de bras could be whilst Antonicheva made the opening of an an apparently simple port de bras from fifth en avant to second sing eloquently across the footlights to the punters standing at the back of the amphitheatre. Her requiem was heart rending but would have been assisted by spending money on the alto chorus that is actually required in the score.


Inna Petrova as Phrygia
© John Ross

Sometimes it is easy to forget that Spartacus is not a four hander. The days of the hour long Bolshoi curtain calls may be over but the remaining soloists never seem to get their due for fiendishly difficult choreography throughout. Special mention should be made of Ruslan Pronin and the three shepherd soloists who gave four stunning, high energy performances, Pronin doubling as the gladiator in Act I on Thursday and the Saturday matinée.

It was clear from eavesdropping in the intervals that a fair proportion of the audience were seeing Spartacus for the first time. It was also clear that the complexities of the score and scenario will survive the vagaries of the Cold War and continue to provide dancers and audiences with challenging material for seasons to come. Who knows, even the critics may catch up given time!

Post Scriptum: There is a fair amount of documentation available from the Romans who were so nearly defeated by Spartacus and his army for those who are curious about the historical basis that so inspired Aram Ilyich Khachaturian and almost fifty years of choreographers. As yet it seems that the full four and a half hour score with supplementary dances has not been re-mixed for CD although it has been available on vinyl via Melodia with the late Algis Zhuraitis conducting. Luckily much more of Khachaturian’s repertoire is becoming available on CD and is well worth the investigation.

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